Tampa, Fla., April 8 2007 -- The Winter Equestrian Festival is a long circuit, no two ways about it. The fact that it starts in January and finishes in April tells only part of the tale this time around, though, because all the tumult over the footing and the future of the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club increased the already significant performance anxiety that goes with big prize money and high expectations.
But happily, the WEF ended on a great note this weekend with as good a Budweiser American Invitational as I've seen (and I've seen 24 of them).
Everyone chilled out a bit in Tampa, where the last two weeks of the circuit shift from frantic Wellington to the relatively low-key, more compact venue of the Florida State Fairgrounds. For the $200,000 finale, however, the action moves across town to Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team, where the most important title in U.S. show jumping is decided.
The atmosphere for this one really hums, with spectators getting in the mood by walking the course and seeing the imposing fences close-up, giving them a better understanding of how high the competitors have to fly. The jumps are beautiful as well as formidable, so it's nice to get a good look at them. My favorites were 5A and B, the two white-columned "viaduct" walls touched with Cerulean blue that made up the first double combination, though the nine riders who faulted there certainly didn't share my opinion.
Although the crowd of 9,500 could not come close to filling the seats in the enormous stadium, it is a decent number in terms of watching our sport. The fans' enthusiasm really adds something to the occasion as they cheer on their favorites in the field of 30 who have qualified during the circuit.
But as far as I was concerned, there were really only two key contenders for first place this time around--Beezie Madden and McLain Ward. These top-notch riders, half of both the gold medal Olympic team in 2004 and last year's silver medal World Equestrian Games squad, are just a cut above everyone else in this hemisphere these days.
Beezie is the highest-ranked U.S. rider on the international list, coming in at number nine, while McLain leads the U.S. standings (after winning the 300,000 Euro Wellington final grand prix, the country's richest), with Beezie second on the American computer list. (In case these rankings confuse you, the methodologies that determine each are different.)
While last year's Invitational had a jump-off with only one American (Chris Kappler) among the four who made the tie-breaker, this time there was just a single foreigner (Canada's Ian Millar) among the five finalists. Aside from the Canadians, most of the foreign riders, including the highly successful Markus Fuchs of Switzerland, had gone home. Last year's winner, Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil stayed around, but couldn't retain his title. A tile dropped at the infamous 5A did him in, and he had to be satisfied with finishing eighth.
In 2006, he was aboard his longtime partner, Baloubet du Rouet. This time, he was up on Coeur, a horse who looks as if he has all the talent in the world, but with whom he is still establishing a rapport.
The relationships Beezie and McLain have with their mounts, Authentic and Sapphire, however, are well established and demonstrate once again that good show jumping partnerships take a long time to develop, but are invaluable.
When these riders asked, their horses answered to the best of their ability.
In the case of Authentic, that ability is considerable. We saw it at the World Equestrian Games, where Beezie was one rail short of winning the individual gold (she got the silver) and it was evident again last night when Authentic zoomed around the tiebreaker course.
This was after he skimmed over the first-round course, which had 14 fences instead of 13, and three double combinations but omitted a triple. With the highest fence (at 5-feet, 4-inches) and the widest fence (an oxer over a liverpool with a 5-6 spread) as the last and next-to-last obstacles respectively, horses just couldn't coast through the finish line.
There have been Invitationals with no jump-off or including just a couple of horses, and I was getting nervous about that happening again until we got nearly two-thirds of the way through the class when the indomitable Margie Engle emerged with a clear round on Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold. The fault-free trip from the 10-time American Grand Prix Association's Rider of the Year was followed two horses later by another from Californian Richard Spooner with Cristallo, and then Ian's perfect effort on the aptly named In Style. At that point, I was breathing easier because I figured Beezie and McLain would come through and I'd have a jump-off to photograph. And it figured that the first part of the class might have trouble, since qualifying is done based on the riders' records during the circuit, with the biggest money-winner (McLain) going last.
Five in the jump-off, by the way, was just about the number the Invitational's longtime course designer, Steve Stephens, was counting on to please the audience. Steve knows the stadium, the effect of the crowds and the lights and has been watching these riders jump for 10 weeks, so it's not surprising he was on the mark. Since Steve is co-designer for the Olympics in Hong Kong next year (with Leopoldo Palacios), don't be stunned to see something on one of those courses that might remind you a bit of this year's Invitational.
Margie had two rails down in the tiebreaker, noting Quervo Gold gets "aggressive" to his fences when he goes fast, but she knew she had to take a shot.
"Either he left them up or he didn't," she told me afterwards, resolutely watching her round projected onto the wall at the after-party in the stadium's dining area, where the Invitational replayed non-stop to the delight of some and the chagrin of others.
Richard had a rail down too, but Ian, next to go, didn't enjoy much leeway despite the errors of the first two because of the speedballs behind him. What to do, what to do?
"I throttled back a little bit. You had to leave the jumps up or you're giving them a present," he said, but he figured his time of 47.99 for a clear round was beatable, since both Margie and Richard had been quicker, though their faults put them behind him in the placings.
Ian was right to worry about Beezie and McLain, of course, but winding up third in this company at the age of 60 is no mean feat. A gentleman and a great athlete, Ian was saluted at half-time when he won the style award given in memory of Bertalan de Nemethy, the coach of the U.S. team who had consummate style himself. (Interestingly, Ian's only Invitational victory came in 1992 with his fabulous Big Ben, when Bert designed the course.)
So it was down to the final two, and it seemed obvious that one or the other of them would win, barring mishaps.
Beezie blazed away with Authentic, who also won the class in 2005. His adjustable frame and foot speed made him as maneuverable as a Ferrari along the twists and turns he took to arrive at the finish line in 44.79 seconds.
"Having McLain behind me, I just had to really go," she said. "It was fun to go fast."
Authentic was really "with" her, obviously glorying in being able to race around such a swath of open space.
McLain had a difficult challenge ahead of him on a great mare whose forte isn't speed. She came darn close, though, finishing in 44.97 seconds to leave the $60,000 first prize to Beezie, while McLain fared well enough by adding $44,000 to his bankroll.
"I did pretty much close to my best," he said, gallantly trying to manage a smile as he put aside his disappointment to talk about being beaten by Beezie. "I hate to lose, but she's great and the horse is great and if you have to lose to somebody, she's a good one to lose to."
However, McLain would be surprised to know that Beezie had special help getting Authentic ready. Katlyn Oaks of Las Vegas, a 9-year-old whose dream of meeting Beezie was heard by the Make A Wish Foundation, spent the day before the show with her idol. Katlyn even got on the back of the equine superstar Authentic.
"She trained him up," Beezie's husband, John, confided to me with a smile at the party where Katlyn proudly wore the Invitational ribbon that Beezie had given her, straight from Authentic's neck to being draped around the delighted little girl's body.
Katlyn's illness means she hasn't been able to ride her own pony for a long time, her dad, James, told me, but you could see the time he and his wife, Ruth, and Katlyn had spent with the Maddens went a long way toward easing the stress that the family had been going through.
Special mention must be made of Brianne Goutal, at 18 the youngest rider in the class, who was competing in her first Invitational. It's pretty intimidating for anyone, and she admitted to me that she was rather nervous the day before the class.
But atop her dependable Onira, she rode well and had only one fence down, number six, an oxer five strides after the first combination that fell seven times during the competition. She blamed herself, saying she made a mistake and chased him, which led to catching the front rail.
An additional two faults for going over the 96-second time allowed (as did 13 other participants) put her out of the ribbons, but now she has a big hurdle behind her and a bright future ahead.
"I was really nervous yesterday," she told me last night, "but as soon as I got on my horse, I was okay." Competing in the class was, she said, with typical teenage enthusiasm, "the biggest rush. I'd love to qualify again next year."
That's it from Florida. Now it's on to Las Vegas, where our coverage of the World Cup finals begins April 19. Don't forget to look for my next postcard on EquiSearch.com then!